Is Creativity Best Fostered Alone, in Pairs, or in Groups?

Collaborative teams spark the most powerful creativity. So Walter Isaacson tells us, repeatedly, in The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. The power of teams was true in any form, whether it was like minds coming together through common interest, such as MIT’s legendary Tech Model Railroad Club; government-funded corporate research such as the transistor’s creation at Bell Labs; or start-up teams that produced profitable companies (think Intel, Apple, Microsoft, and Google). It is collaboration that drives innovation, with focused minds bringing different backgrounds and mindsets to advance ideas creatively and imaginatively, he says. Forget the Eureka moment. The solo inventor is a myth. It is all about the team.

light-bulbs-235856_640Isaacson, thus, finds himself pushing back against a narrative published a few months earlier by Joshua Wolf Shenk in Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. Whether it’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park fame or Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple, creativity is at its best when two creative minds spar back and forth.

Of course Isaacson includes Jobs and Wozniak in The Innovators (let’s not forget that Isaacson also is the author of the authorized biography of Jobs). He includes other collaborative pairs, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Intel’s Gordon Moore and William Shockley, and even 19th Century polymaths Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. So I guess that means we should allow Shenk’s two-person ideal to be a subset of Isaacson’s multi-person ideal.

But Isaacson also has a few solo inventors in there. One he summarily dismisses, John Vincent Atanasoff. Well, Isaacson acknowledges that Atanasoff could fairly be said to have created the first truly working computer, a creative accomplishment that shouldn’t be overlooked. Isaacson explicitly does overlook him, however, in favor of John Mauchly, who with J. Presper Eckert and others built the ENIAC, the Army-funded computer that can fairly be said to have led to future computing innovations. Atanasoff doesn’t count, Isaacson argues, because Atanasoff’s computer was never used and was eventually forgotten.

Okay. So apparently creativity doesn’t count if someone else doesn’t come along and improve on it. But let’s look at another innovator in Isaacson’s book, Tim Berners-Lee. He created what you’re currently reading this blog post on, the World Wide Web. Now he completed it while working with others at CERN, but he developed the basic architecture completely on his own.

4351196974_e0c2b806b3_zAn even stronger case of solo innovation in Isaacson’s book is Linus Torvalds, idolized by open-source geeks around the world. Torvalds, while slaving away in his parent’s basement in Finland as a teenager, developed the Linux kernel. He wasn’t part of a local computer club, or a government-funded commercial lab, or a Silicon Valley start-up. He just stayed in his basement and coded. His work opened the way to a universal operating system that anyone could use to bypass commercially locked down systems from Apple, Microsoft, and others. Torvalds even had a Eureka moment, because he didn’t set out at first to enable a new operating system; he was tweaking code to make certain operating tasks easier for him and the epiphany struck, that his work could lead to an operating system kernel.

Now Isaacson might argue that Torvalds still is an example of collaboration, because he engineered his kernel for existing GNU code that itself was crowdsourced as a derivative of UNIX. That’s a fair point. Isaacson might also argue Torvalds’ Eureka moment doesn’t count, because he had already been putting so much time and effort into what he eventually envisioned. But I would argue that is the case for every Eureka moment. The term comes to us from the Greek scholar Archimedes, who is said to have shouted it while in the tub, as he realized his body caused the water level to rise; thus he developed a theory of water displacement. It must be noted that he had for a long time been noodling on just this type of mathematical notion. (It must also be noted that some maintain Archimedes in his excitement ran down the streets of Syracuse naked; alas, there is no tale in The Innovators that is so amusing.)

So what is the lesson to be learned here? Is creativity at its most powerful in groups? In pairs? Alone? I would argue–and I mean no disrespect to the authors here–the lesson to be learned is that if you want to get a nonfiction book contract, you must take a strong position, preferably a counter-intuitive one, and then push hard on your thesis at the expense of evidence to the contrary. That doesn’t mean the books don’t make good points or aren’t worth reading. I would recommend reading Isaacson’s book, as you’ll see in my Goodreads review.)

I work with inventors now in my day job, including some of the people profiled in Isaacson’s book. They are quick to tell me of how important collaboration was to them. Isaacson’s thesis is not a false one. Collaboration can in fact be a very powerful driver of creativity.

But I also have worked over the years with a lot of artists. Some, such as musicians, often thrive in collaboration. (John Lennon and Paul McCartney make up one of the pairs profiled in Shenk’s book.) An untold number of children’s books have been published that are collaborations between an illustrator and an author. And even someone like me, a writer alone in his basement (albeit in Alexandria, Virginia, not in Finland), finds his prose worked on by others, whether it be a local writer’s group, students in a writing class, or an editor or publisher.

13689886744_139ab6985f_zThat said, I think that when you look across the broad swath of artistic masterpieces, the solo artist is predominant. So what should we conclude here? That in the arts, creativity is at its best a solo endeavor, and that in the inventive sciences, creativity is at its best in groups? I would argue that the volume of evidence suggests that those are the predominant paths in those fields, but that there is no one most powerful path to creativity.

Thus endeth the rant. Let me conclude with a plug: I’d love for you to join me at the Florida Creativity Weekend in Sarasota, Florida. I’ll be leading a ninety-minute workshop on March 21st titled “Putting Your Whole Brain to Work” that touches on elements of solo and collaborative creativity across arts and sciences. I won’t be lecturing, however; my workshops are hands-on, with fun activities to get your brain working. You’ll save 20 percent on registration through February 15th; see their Facebook page for details!

[NOTE: Usually I only use my own photos on this blog. For this entry I chose to be collaborative, using images shared through Creative Commons; click on the image to go to the original.]

15 thoughts on “Is Creativity Best Fostered Alone, in Pairs, or in Groups?

  1. I remember fondly my days as a filmmaker in a collective. Were we especially brilliant? No. But we sure had fun. So that’s my contribution to this discussion — togetherness is more fun!


    1. Nice! I remember being in a men’s singing group in college. The eight of us managed to travel the state of Colorado in an increasingly smelly van, paying our way by passing a hat at performances, and had enough left over to throw a party for our friends upon our return to California. Can’t say that we were more creative musicians together than apart, but yes to the fun.


  2. davidbgoldstein

    Thanks for sharing this Patrick. I haven’t yet read Isaacson’s book and appreciate your summary. Our creativity can be best fostered either alone or in groups – depending on our personality type.

    From my work on personality type and creativity, my short answer is that Introverts tend to be more creative with plenty of alone time to ponder and reflect. For example, as an Introvert, I’m most creative with blocks of time to think, write or paint. On the other hand, Extraverts tend to be more creative when they can engage with people and their surroundings. My extraverted co-author preferred to be creative when around people because he tended to think out loud and loved bouncing ideas off others.

    As you and some of your readers know from your review of my book Creative You, my longer answer to this question is too much to describe in these comments but can be found in my chapter on collaboration. Here I discuss how knowing your own personality can help you understanding the best ways to work with people of other types.

    Note that even thought I’m an introvert, I benefited from working with a co-author – but my best creative time came after our discussions when I was alone. In our specialized world, taking a creative idea and developing a product for a wide audience takes a broad set of skills and we all benefit from some level of collaboration.


  3. I totally believe it has a lot to do with WHAT you’re trying to create and how many moving parts there are. Creativity always begins inside the brain—of an individual. The more knowledge an individual has, the more tools there are to work with during the creative process, whether it comes from personal observation (think of Einstein and DaVinci), from teachers, from peers, etc. Of course, brainstorming in groups can sometimes pick up the pace or slow down the process of creativity. I know most of my creativity starts with me. Sometimes, depending on the project, I will then open up to input or collaboration when it’s needed. Both are powerful and both are highly effective, I think.


    1. You know, Isaacson doesn’t focus as much as I’d like on what is happening in the brains of individuals in the group. At times it comes up, however, in debates after the fact of who “invented” something. At times everyone in the group is happy to share credit, but sometimes someone feels it was truly “their” idea but a team helped the vision be realized.


  4. If a creative mind is not encouraged, or worse, discouraged, the story told is tragedy. The burning desire for creation to be seen, felt and acknowledged is evident in all that we experience as artistic beings. The artist that has no platform to give their craft a voice, will slowly give up to despair. Groups of creative minds don’t necessarily cause more efficient or effective creative thinking. However, it can be the presence of like minds who empathize with what it feels like to be an artist, those who KNOW they can’t be anything other than an artist, that comforts the creative soul. In comfort, we can move forward to express the burning that drives our hands and minds. A mind without comfort cannot settle itself to produce much of anything. Perhaps its not necessarily the effect of others in the room cheering you on that gets us going as much as the knowledge that if they were there, they would be.


    1. This is a very powerful and insightful comment, Victoria. Essentially it’s about having the support of fellow artists, who know the challenge of an art-committed life. I have had that here and through my MFA program and alumni network, and with a local Writer’s group while I was in it.


  5. This one definitely got me thinking Patrick, since I have little chunks of experience in quite a few of the different scenarios you covered in this very insightful post.

    Creatively, I’ve collaborated with a composer in the past to write two musicals which were performed in Washington (a loonnng time ago now. 😉 ) I don’t think either of us could’ve completed those musicals if we’d worked alone; his speciality was musical composition and mine was lyrics. We were yin and yang as much in personality as in our particular skill areas, and while that meant we had some interesting ‘differences of opinion’ every now and then it also meant we trusted each other enough to let the other handle the parts we didn’t specialise in ourselves. We’d both dabbled in each others’ fields in the past (I’d composed my own music for lyrics I’d written, and he’d written lyrics to go with a few of his music pieces) we both knew where our strengths and weaknesses lay and it was only through putting our egos aside and dividing the control over each of those areas sensibly that we were able to create what we did.

    On the computing side, I worked for about four years as a software technician for a major avionics company. In that environment, projects that had only one person working on them were close to zero because it’s not the way the industry works as a rule, so groups of all sizes were the norm. Most often the ones that finished their projects on time and on budget were the ones with a small number of people working on them – two people most commonly, but groups of four worked pretty well too. The ones that consistently ran over-budget and fell behind were the ones that had big groups working on them – ten-plus usually. (And ironically, when grilled about this, one of the most common reasons the project managers cited for the problems was ‘not enough people to get the work done!’)

    I like working in groups, but I have tendency to gravitate towards the ‘gap-filler’ role, i.e hiding at the back and saying “No, it’s okay, I’ll just do whatever nobody else wants to do!” Which ultimately isn’t as useful as it sounds. Ah well.

    Great post, Patrick – lots to ponder.


    1. Wendy, I love the examples you bring here! Your musical example is not unlike the writer/illustrator example I cited; very interesting. And yes, the group approach is common in computing/software. (This has proved an issue at times when I’ve promoted artist rights in tech circles; they don’t tend to “get” how much a solo creator can feel “ownership” of a creative work, whether legal or philosophical, because their creativity is collaborative and ownership is shared.)


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  7. Reblogged this on bloodytoez and commented:
    As a young boy, playing the violin was the first time I felt that I created something that I could call my own. Then I excelled at playing the violin by playing in large crowds. In November 2006, a chemical explosion rocked my street corner in my town Danvers, Ma. This was a troubling moment in my life and the first time when I felt life wanted to leave me for good. It tend to be afraid of loud and abrupt noises. This is still tough for me today but doing anything creative helps me get through the day. Melissa’s story is similar to mine in which we are trying to over come a traumatic event. Creativity can overcome sadness and pain, if you allow it too.


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